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History Crash Course #13: The Tragedy of the Spies

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Ken Spiro

Every major disaster in Jewish history is connected to the 9th of Av. It all began with the 12 spies.

After a year at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people pack up their portable sanctuary and come to the borders of the Land of Israel.

They should have entered the land at this point, but the Jewish people came to Moses and said, "Wait a minute, let's scout out the land first before we enter."

So they select 12 "scouts" or "spies" -- one from each of the 12 tribes -- and send them in to do some reconnaissance work.

We have to spend a little time talking about the tragedy of the spies, because the implication of this event is going to reverberate throughout all of Jewish history. It's going to put into place one of the most significant and certainly most depressing dates in the Jewish calendar -- the Ninth of Av -- Tisha B'Av. Virtually every major disaster in Jewish history is going to be connected to the Ninth of Av -- which is the exact date when both the first and second Temples were destroyed.

Again, actions of the Jews have huge consequences which reverberate throughout history. Jews have suffered throughout history because of that mistake they made "back then." So what was the terrible mistake of the spies?

These 12 spies spend 40 days scouting out the land and they come back with a huge cluster of grapes saying, "You all see the size of these grapes? You should see the size of some of the people who eat them. They are giants! No way can we beat them. We may as well go back to Egypt."(1)

Only two of the spies dissent from this report: Joshua ben Nun, who is Moses' chief student, and Caleb ben Yefuna from the tribe of Judah.

But the Jewish people accept the majority report of the spies. The people break down in tears at the news and refuse to budge.

Moses is absolutely horrified and God is very angry. He issue two decrees of punishment:

  1. God tells the Jews that because they displayed this lack of faith after He had brought them so far, they are doomed to wander in the desert for 40 years (One year for every day they spied out the land) until the entire adult male population (except for the Levites who did not listen to the spies) had died off. (The women, who always carried the standard of faith in Judaism, didn't listen to the spies and lived to go into the land.)
  2. God tells the Jews that because they cried on this day for no good reason, they will cry on this day in history for some very good reasons. (We will see how this is carried out in future installments in this series.)


The Jews wander for 40 years. It's interesting to note that virtually none of the text of the Bible deals with the details of the wandering. If you examine the text in the Book of Numbers you will notice that between the Torah portion dealing with Korach's rebellion (Num. 16-18) and the next Torah portion Chukot (Num. 19-20), there is a gap of 38 years. The only brief mention of the travels that took place during those 38 years comes at the end of the Book of Numbers in the portion entitled Masei. We see these gaps many times in the narrative. Since the Bible is meant to teach us lessons and was not meant to be a diary or history book, only events that have a lesson relevant to us today are recorded; others are mentioned only briefly or skipped altogether.

Near the end of the 40 years of wandering, they find themselves -- as they did a number of times before -- without water.(2) And as they did a number of times before, they are complaining. God tells Moses to speak to the rock and water will flow.

For the past 40 years Moses has had the hardest job on the planet earth -- leading an unruly group of people God himself described as "stiff-necked." We've talked about the Jewish people's greatest strength and greatest weakness. What's their greatest strength? Their complete dedication to an idea, which enabled them to, exist for 2,000 years as the only monotheists in the world, outlast the greatest nations in history and die for an ideology that would change the world.

What's their greatest weakness? This national characteristic of idealism and independence is a double-edged sword that has a negative side to it. Their complete, stubborn dedication to an idea that makes every Jew think he's right and every Jew think that he's going to change the world his way. This is a group that is very, very difficult to unify and almost impossible to lead. It is far easier to be the premier of a billion Chinese than the prime minister of a few million Jews. (3)

(A humorous story illustrating this point is told about a meeting between former US President Harry Truman and the future Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir. Truman was bemoaning the difficulties of leadership and remarked, "You have no idea what it is to be a president of a country of 200 million people." To which Meir responded, "You have no idea of what is to be a prime minister of a country of 2 million prime ministers.")

So after 40 years of trying to lead this stubborn nation, Moses loses his temper for one moment. "You rebels!" he shouts. And instead of speaking to the rock as he was commanded to do, he hits it. (4)

And God says to Moses, "Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you're not going to go into the Land of Israel with the Jewish people." (Num. 20:12)

The Sages say that anger is a form of idolatry, because if God runs the world, then everything that happens to you, whether for bad or for good, is the will of God. Losing your temper is a form of denial that God is running the world, a rejection of the idea that whatever happens is for your own good.

For Moses -- the ultimate prophet to whom God spoke face-to-face -- to get angry even for a few seconds, the consequences are awesome. It's a desecration of God's name, done publicly in front of the Jewish people.

The consequences show just how accountable people on such high levels are for the little mistakes they make and the repercussions of those mistakes. This theme will repeat itself over and over again throughout the Bible.

Moses, of course, sees his error right away and accepts God's judgment.


Moses now prepares the people for their entry into the Promised Land. The last of the Five Books of Moses is his farewell address to the people.

When Deuteronomy begins, Moses already knows he's not destined to bring the Jewish people into the Land of Israel, and this entire book is Moses' farewell address to the people. Here Moses reviews the commandments, and reiterates the Jewish national mission. The most common idea he repeats over and over again is: "Keep the Torah."

In a nutshell, Moses says, "If you keep the laws between 'man and God' and between 'man and man', everything will go fine for you. No other nation will touch you. You'll have material prosperity, and you will live to change the world. But if you don't keep the Torah, if you break your end of the bargain, then the land will vomit you out, your enemies will attack, and you will suffer."

The message is clear. The solution to all our problems has nothing to do with external threats-external threats are merely symptoms of the deeper problem which is always the Jewish people not keeping their side of the bargain. It always has to do with the Jews' relationship to each other and their relationship to God.

The late 19th and 20th centuries were the first time in Jewish history where large numbers of Jews left God (by choice and not by force, a la the Expulsion from Spain in 1492) , and were left wondering, "Where is God?" World War One broke out on the Ninth of Av. The German sweep into Eastern Europe beginning in 1914, uprooted Jewish communities and demolished centuries of tradition. It was the precursor to the horrendous Holocaust.

A Holocaust survivor writes: "The quintessential element that distinguishes this event (the Holocaust) was the search for God. Every Jew who remained in the ghettos and the camps remembers "the God Syndrome" that shrouded everything else. From morning till night we cried out for a sign that God was still with us... We sought Him, but we did not find Him. We were always accompanied by the crushing and unsettling feeling that God had disappeared from our midst." (Machshavot Magazine, Vol. 46, p. 4)

Throughout the rest of Jewish history, Jews in even the worst circumstances have viewed external problems, even the worst problems like being slaughtered en masse in the Crusades, as divine retribution for their mistakes. You will rarely find Jews, until the 20th century, saying "Where is God?" They are almost always saying, "It's because of wrongdoing that God has done this to us."

Prior to his death, Moshe completes the writing of the first Torah scroll. In addition, he writes another twelve scrolls which were given one to each of the twelve tribes. The thirteenth was placed in the Ark of the Covenant and eventually deposited in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. This last scroll, which was occasionally removed from the Ark, served as the proof text for future scrolls to insure the accuracy of transmission of the text of the Oral Law. (5)

Having delivered this final message, Moses dies and is buried on Mount Nebo somewhere across the mountains in Jordan. We are deliberately not told where it is, so nobody will worship his grave over there.

Joshua assumes leadership. Judaism is a meritocracy. Real leadership in Jewish history goes not to those who were born into the right families, but to the people who are best suited for the job. (A great Torah scholar with integrity and leadership skills) So the job of successor does not go to Moses' sons (who are barely heard of) but to Joshua ben Nun, Moses' chief disciple who had proven his mettle in the incident with the spies. In addition to Joshua ( and from the time of Moses-see Numbers 11:16) there was a supreme legislative body of the seventy top Torah scholars know as the z'kenim, or Elders -- later known as the Sanhedrin (Greek word for 70). These too were chosen on the merit of their scholarship and integrity thus creating history's first meritocracy. (6)

At this point in our story we have finished the Five Books of Moses and now enter the next phase of Jewish history and the next section of the Bible-The Book of Joshua.

1) The obvious question that would be asked at this point is: The Jewish people had just seen God destroy the most powerful civilization in the ancient world-Egypt. Why should they be afraid of the Canaanites? The answer seems to be that that while they we in the desert they lived a supernatural existence: manna from heaven, water from a rock, clouds of glory and pillars of fire. They recognized that upon entering the land all that would end and they would have to resort to a normal and more difficult existence of fighting and farming. Their desire not to enter was, therefore primarily fueled by a desire to prolong their supernatural existence. Their mistake was in not trusting in God enough to see that even through natural means they would be able to conquer, settle and prosper in the land.
2) The supernatural phenomenon of the Manna, water from the rock and clouds all came on the merit of Moses (manna), Aaron (Clouds) and Miriam (water). As each of them die toward the end of the wanderings, the supernatural phenomenon cease.
3) A number of years ago I was sitting in lecture given by one of Israel's foremost military historians, Meir Pe'il. He mentioned something which beautifully illustrates this point: He told the audience that he has taught in numerous war colleges around the world: West Point, Sandhurst etc and viewed many of the world's armies in action. Then he said: "On one point every army in the world is the same. In every army in the world the officers give orders, but in the Israeli army the officers have to explain things."
4) Immediately after the Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 17:5-7) God had commanded Moses to strike the rock in-order-to get it to bring forth water.
5) Ramban, Intro. to the Yad; Dvarim Rabbah9:4; Midrash Tehillim 90:3; Tosafoth, Bava Matra 14a. The accuracy of the transmission process of both the Written and Oral has always been a crucial factor in the preservation of both the Torah and the Jewish people. The laws regarding the accuracy of a Torah Scroll are very, very strict. During the weekly reading of the Torah portion, even the smallest mistake on the part of the reader is corrected by the entire congregation. A Torah scroll (which is always copied by hand) that has even the smallest error (one missing or wrong letter of the 304,805) cannot be used and must be fixed within 30 days or buried. A brief quote from the Talmud illustrates this point: Rebbe Meir said: When I came to study with Rebbe Yishmael, he said to me, "My son, what is your line of work?" I told him I was a scribe. He said to me: "My son, be careful with your work, for it is the work of heaven. Should you perhaps omit one letter or add one letter- you could destroy the entire world." Talmud, Eruvin 13a.
6) For more on the Sanhedrin see: Deut. 1:17; Deut. 16:18; Ex. 23:2. The best detailed description can be found in Miamonides Yad,Shoftim: Laws of the Sanhedrin.. Also see Chapter 11 of WorldPerfect-The Jewish Impact on Civilization.

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